When is the Jewish New Year?
People often want to know more about the Jewish new year, especially in the fall, when our most popular new year observance occurs.
The simple answer: Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew for “Head of the Year”) is on the first day of Tishrei by the Hebrew calendar. This usually falls between early September and early October in the secular/Gregorian calendar. In 2019 it will begin at sundown on September 29 and end at sundown on October 1.
The complicated answer: It’s complicated.
Rabbinic writings from approximately 1,800 years ago list four distinct “new year’s days” for four different cycles of time:
The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees according to the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof. (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1)
As in many areas of Jewish wisdom, often people are just looking for the simple answer that allows them to plan their day and send the right greeting cards at the right time. But if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, you can achieve much greater understanding of ancient Jewish wisdom and the meaning it can bring to your life today.
Plus, this deeper digging can give you a better understanding of not just Rosh Hashanah, but several Jewish holidays throughout the year.
So here are the four Jewish new years, explained:
First of Nisan
The first of the spring month of Nisan (the month that contains Passover), according to the Mishnah, is the new year for kings and for festivals. What does this mean?
Jewish New Year for Kings
Regnal years represent one of the oldest ways of marking time and dating legal and official documents during monarchic periods in the ancient world. You can find many examples in the books of Kings and Chronicles and prophets like Jeremiah, locating an event or message in time by saying something like, “In the Nth year of King So-and-So, such-and-such happened.” Historically, British legal and official documents show examples of this as well.
From the day a king took the throne until the following first of Nisan, it was the first year of the kings reign. After the first of Nisan, it became the second year of his reign. Note that this meant all regnal year calendars began on the same day, NOT on the anniversary of the kings’ accession. I imagine (I wasn’t there) that this made record keeping and court bureaucracies MUCH easier to manage than having a new new year every time you got a new king, which happened fairly often in some eras.
Jewish New Year for Festivals
There are three major festivals among the year of Jewish holidays: Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (“weeks”), and Sukkot (“booths”, “huts”, or “tabernacles”). Each of these has a connection to both an event in our history AND to a milestone in the agricultural calendar of ancient Israel.
- Pesah – Redemption from slavery in Egypt; first grain (barley) harvest.
- Shavuot – Revelation of the Torah at Sinai; second grain (wheat) harvest.
- Sukkot – Wandering in the wilderness for 40 years; vegetable harvest.
Even though we celebrate the new year for years in the fall (right before Sukkot – see below), we consider Pesah (which falls in Nisan) to be the first festival of the three-festival cycle.
First of Elul
The first of Elul, according to the Mishnah, is the new year for the tithing of animals. What does this mean?
Jewish New Year for the Tithing of Animals
The Torah decrees a tithing of kosher grazing animals in the book of Leviticus:
All tithes of the herd or flock—of all that passes under the shepherd’s staff, every tenth one—shall be holy to the Lord. (Leviticus 27:32)
This meant that every tenth of such animal born in a particular household’s possession was to be offered as a korban or sacrifice in the Mishkah (portable sanctuary or “tabernacle”) or the Beit HaMikdash (Temple in Jerusalem). As in many ancient sacrificial systems, the animals were not completely destroyed in the process; their meat would go to feed the tribe of Levi, which had no land allotment in the Promised Land.
Note: This commandment was only considered binding when we had a central location for sacrifices, such as the Temple, and a priestly class employed in this endeavor. If you’re a rancher in Texas today, don’t be showing up at Sam Levinson’s house with a cow today. 🙂
To keep track of “every tenth one” it was helpful to establish a kind of fiscal year, a common point of counting for all cattle-owners to use. So the rabbis marked the first of Elul for this purpose; however, according to Mishnah, a couple rabbis liked the first of Tishrei for this. Personally, I prefer to save my first of Tishrei for Rosh Hashanah!
Because blowing horns and eating apples and honey is more fun than counting cows.
First of Tishrei
The first of Tishrei, according to the Mishnah, is the new year for years, sabbatical years, and jubilee years. What does this mean?
Jewish New Year for Years
FINALLY we’re getting to the Jewish new year most people think of when they think of the Jewish new year: Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the first and second of Tishrei. It kicks of the period called the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah (“Ten Days of Repentance”) which ends with Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”). This period is also called the Yamim Noraim (“Days of Awe”), or the Jewish High Holy Days or High Holidays.
Because Jews have had self-governance and monarchs for such a small proportion of our overall history, it has been useful to have another way of reckoning and recording calendar years. We use a particular calculation of the Anno Mundi (year since the creation of the world).
Different cultures have their own traditions for calculating this important number. Our rabbis combed through the Masoretic text of the 24 books of the Tanakh, adding up all the regnal years, biographies, genealogies, etc., and came up our number such that last Rosh Hashanah (September 9, 2018 CE, as of this writing) began the year 5779 livriat olam (since the creation of the universe).
Really? Is the world flat, too?
This does not mean that most Jews think the known universe is only 5,779 years old, although there may be a few who do. (Hey, every religion has their fundamentalists; so do we.) Even as far back as the Talmud, around 1.5 millennia ago, rabbis wondered: Was the earth really created in 6 days? The concluded: “Days ain’t what they used to be,” meaning in the early time of the formation of the world “day” may be a metaphor for a period or epoch, rather than a strict measure of 24 hours containing 60 minutes each.
So while most modern Jews (and rabbis) understand the world to be much older, we maintain this useful convention for or calendars and Jewish legal documents. For example, a ketubah or Jewish marriage certificate for a wedding that happens this year will say that it happened in sh’nat 5779 livriat olam, or in the year 5779 since the creation of the universe.
So every year on the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah we add one to the calendar year, just like we do on January 1 for the secular calendar.
Though for the life of me, I’m still writing 5778 on my checks. 🙂
Jewish New Year for Sabbatical Years
Sabbatical years (shmita in Hebrew, “release”) occur one out of every seven years.
Two important things happened every sabbatical year:
- Land under agricultural use was supposed to lie fallow, and any produce that grew during that year was considered hefker (“ownerless”) and could be harvested by anyone. (Leviticus 25:1-7)
- All debts between Jews were cancelled. (Deuteronomy 15:1-3)
Of course, because agriculture and finance can involve complex arrangements between many parties, it’s once again useful to have a standard “fiscal year” that everyone follows; this time we anchor it to the fall vegetable harvest season.
Just as every seventh day is a gift of rest and recovery for humans, so too every seventh year is a gift of rest and recovery for agricultural land. This is not unlike the later development of crop rotation, and even the modern practice of letting some sections of agricultural land to lie fallow for a season (even allowing livestock to graze on it and, um, fertilize it in the meantime).
In Deuteronomy the Torah recognizes what we are seeing today: Permanent indebtedness leads to socioeconomic stratification and the development of a permanent underclass, so it sought to remedy this with a cycle of debt remission every seven years. Not for nothing, this is why many countries’ and states’ bankruptcy laws use a seven-year cycle. Where do you think they got that number?
Of course, later on in the Talmud, the rabbis recognized another aspect of human nature (foreseen by Deuteronomy) that this might discourage lending to the poor. The Torah just says, “Lend anyway!” But seeing that this was not happening, the rabbis instituted something called prozbul, whereby lenders and borrowers could agree to a loan on condition that the borrow would repay the loan, even if the shmita year transpired before full repayment. This compromise appeared to set aside one Torah value (“Lend anyway!”) to accomplish another (“Take care of the poor!”)
While this may seem contradictory, hypocritical, or legalistic to some, I believe it recognizes the complexity of human nature and human life in ways that help us preserve Torah in the world, where a more binary or black-and-white perspective would cause people to abandon Torah altogether. It’s the same reason we have the principle pikuah nefesh dohe Shabbat – one may and must defer Sabbath observance in order to save a human life.
Jewish New Year for Jubilee Years
Similarly, the Torah gives us the opportunity for a kind of economic “global reset” in the form of Yovel, or the Jubilee year.
You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land, and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:8-10)
We begin with the premise that once B’nei Yisrael enter the Promised Land, the land itself will be allotted among the tribes, and each tribe’s allotment will be further divided and distributed among the families that were present at the time.
The Torah recognized the reality that some families would have better luck (and sometimes exercise better judgment) than others. Some farms and households would do well in a given year; some wouldn’t, and they may need to borrow from neighbors to sustain them in years to come. Often this debt would result in the sale of property and even persons in the form of indentured servitude, or debt slavery. Even then the Torah recognized that the natural order of things was for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. This would create a kind of permanent inequality among fellow Hebrews that was wholly inconsistent with the vision for everyone having an equal share in the prosperity of the land God promised us.
Rather than creating a strictly controlled communitarian economy that was constantly balanced, the Torah encouraged human ingenuity and the accumulation of wealth. However, it decreed that every fifty years, we should redistribute all land (the key source of wealth in an agrarian economy) according to ancestral claims, and all those literally enslaved by debt would go free. This “global reset” was intended to allow people to prosper for their good judgment (and their good luck) while preventing a permanently stratified social order.
For what it’s worth, we have no record in scripture or later rabbinic literature that verifies Jews ever successfully implementing this, but it’s a nice idea, no? Nevertheless, it serves as another example of the Torah getting real with human nature, and at the same time, giving us a higher standard to aspire to.
Fifteenth of Shevat
Finally, the Hebrew month of Shevat gives us the Jewish new year for trees. Note that today, as we do in most areas of Jewish law, we follow the ruling of Rabbi Hillel over the ruling of Rabbi Shammai. Sorry, Shammai!
Oddly, this gives a new year in the middle of the month. But why do trees need a Jewish new year in the first place?
Jewish New Year for Trees
Once again, this comes from a couple of commandments we learn in the book of Leviticus:
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord, and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 19:23-25)
So to keep these commandments, we have to remember how old each tree we have planted is, so that we know what we can and cannot do with its fruit.
But once again, to simplify our agricultural record keeping, and to not have the remember the unique birthday of every single tree (I have enough trouble keeping track of the birthdays of my four kids), we observe the holiday Tu BiShvat. This is simply Hebrew for “the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat.” It establishes a kind of fiscal calendar whereby we think of every tree as having the same birthday.
Happy Jewish New Year(s)!
So now you know not only about the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah; you also know that you can wish Jewish people “Happy New Year” not one but FOUR times a year!
Outside of Rosh Hashanah, however, this may get you some funny looks.
And it may make the livestock nervous. And the trees.
Thank you for reading this in-depth discussion of the various understandings of the Jewish new year. If you’d like to know more about any of these ideas, please ask any question you wish in the comments below.
Also, if you’d like to kick your Jewish learning up a notch, please consider clicking the picture below to download the free guide, “3 Things Jewcurious People Need to Upgrade Your Jewish Learning.”